BY MARK GODFREY
“You’ll never win anything with kids” – Alan Hansen, Match of the Day: August 19th 1995
By May 1996, the now retired king of the pundits was made to devour his own words. Manchester United had just become the first club to repeat ‘the double’ having overhauled a 12-point deficit to Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United in the Premier League and then lifted the FA Cup thanks to a late, late Eric Cantona winner against the old enemy – Hansen’s former club, Liverpool.
Although those successes were secured by experienced members of the side at the peak of their powers such as Cantona, Peter Schmeichel and Roy Keane, the quality and youthful exuberance of the now-deified ‘Class of 92’ were the driving force behind that amazing and unlikely achievement.
Alex Ferguson had long been known as a manager prepared to bring home-grown young talent into his various first teams. Before moving south to Old Trafford, Ferguson famously blended the older, wiser heads like Willie Miller and Stuart Kennedy with ‘kids’ like Eric Black, Jim Leighton, Alex McLeish, John Hewitt and Neil Simpson at Aberdeen as trophy after trophy – including the European Cup Winners Cup and two Scottish championships - made their way to Pittodrie during a remarkable eight year spell for the Dons.
In November 1986, Fergie was chosen by Martin Edwards to turnaround the fortunes of Manchester United after a poor start to the 86-87 campaign saw the removal of Ron Atkinson from his post; his mission statement – “to knock Liverpool off their fucking perch”. Ambitious, given the decade-long dominance of the Anfield club over English and European football, but he was a man used to getting success his way, even if that meant having to overcome better established set-ups like Liverpool (or the Old Firm in the case of his time in Scotland).
Much has been made of the relatively lavish sums of money United relieved themselves of during those initial and unfulfilled seasons under Ferguson in the pursuit of silverware. He unceremoniously pruned the squad of its troublemakers in an attempt to reverse a perceived drinking culture, so out when the likes of Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside – crowd favourites - while in their place came Brian McClair, Steve Bruce, Viv Anderson and his trusted custodian from Aberdeen, Jim Leighton.
Improvement was slow but gradual, however, Ferguson trusted the methods that had served him so well earlier in his career and set about trying to compliment the older ‘stars’ with the hunger and desire of players coming through the ranks. He set about introducing into the senior team, the first iteration of the group christened by the British press as ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’.
The United youth team that constituted the majority of ‘The Fledglings’ had reached the 1986 FA Youth Cup final where they were defeated by the much-heralded Manchester City side of Paul Lake et al. Two years later, as United continued to toil in their efforts to match the two Merseyside clubs, Arsenal and Nottingham Forest, Ferguson turned to this exciting new prospects.
Initial performances were full of promise; diminutive midfielder Russell Beardsmore – one the first Fledglings to get his opportunity in the first team – scored one and set two up in a 3-1 win over Liverpool on New Year’s Day 1989. Lee Martin made the left back slot his own during the same season after veteran Scottish international Arthur Albiston’s departure.
Mark Robins and particularly Lee Sharpe (signed from Torquay United for £200,000) were also beginning to make their mark at Old Trafford – Sharpe made 30 appearances in all competitions during that 88-89 season.
But no sooner had the Fledglings started to emerge, than bad luck and injury began to pick some of them off, one-by-one.
David Wilson was repeatedly sent on loan after just six substitute appearances leaving the club on a free transfer in 1991. Deiniol Graham broke his arm in a Reserve game with Bury just a month after scoring his first senior goal; his eight-month absence effectively ending his United career.
It was a similar story for Giuliano Maiorana. The exciting winger impressed Ferguson during a trial and was subsequently brought in from Eastern Counties League club Histon – the £30,000 transfer fee saving the part-timers from going bust. After just seven games, Maiorana sustained a serious knee injury and never played for the club again, finally being released in 1994.
The first of that generation to make his bow in the first team was Tony Gill who made his debut in January 1987 as a replacement for skipper Bryan Robson in a draw with Southampton. Achilles problems restricted his progress after that but he returned to action for the 88-89 season as a regular in the squad. The early months of 1989 provided both the highs and lows of Gill’s time in the game. The utility man scored twice – his only United goals – in two consecutive games within four days in January, but cruelly just two months later, his career was finished. An accidental collision with Nottingham Forest’s Brian Laws at the City Ground resulted in a broken leg and shattered ankle. He retired for good a year later.
Fergie’s first attempt at introducing a whole batch of young players at once floundered, and as pressure grew on the Scot, he raided the Old Trafford coffers yet again in a bid to bolster his failing squad and ultimately, save his job and reputation.
In the summer of 1989, with the backdrop of the Madchester music scene and the madness of Michael Knighton’s aborted takeover of the club, a raft of top signings were persuaded to sign for the struggling giants – Mike Phelan, Gary Pallister, Paul Ince, Danny Wallace and Neil Webb came in for the princely combined total of £6.75million; a fortune for the time.
That summer’s spending spree, combined with injuries, curtailed the development of Fergie’s Fledglings Mk I with the exception of Robins, Sharpe and Martin.
Martin was a regular in 89-90 and was cast in the role of unlikely hero as he scored the winner in that season’s FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace, earning Ferguson his first piece of silverware south of the border. Unfortunately for him, that would be as good as it got. He lost his place to Clayton Blackmore the following year and never managed to re-establish himself. He joined Celtic in 1994 just as United began to establish their dominance in England.
Sharpe was the great white hope of English football in the late 80’s and early 90’s. His pace and flair mesmerised full backs up and down the land earning a call up to the national squad where he managed to pick up eight full caps. Known as a party animal, Ferguson is believed to have developed his sense of overprotection of the Class of 92 having seen the example set them by charismatic Brummie. A combination of successive bad injuries, loss of form and the emergence of Ryan Giggs to usurp his position in the first team meant that Sharpe’s time in Manchester was cut short in 1996 having helped United to three championships, two FA Cups and a Cup Winners Cup.
Robins – seen as the natural successor to Mark Hughes – appeared sporadically in the first team between 1988 and 1992. But his impact on Manchester United may undoubtedly be the greatest of all.
Although its long been denied by then-United chairman Martin Edwards, it’s widely purported that Ferguson was on the verge of the sack in January 1990. He took his team – 15th in the league at the time - to the City Ground to play Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in a televised all-First Division FA Cup third round tie knowing that defeat could spell the end.
With the game drifting towards a goalless conclusion and a replay, Robins bundled a header home from a Hughes cross to give United – and more vitally Ferguson – a lifeline; although a late Forest equaliser was mysteriously disallowed to enhance the change of luck.
That goal set United on the Road to Wembley and, ultimately, the FA Cup victory that kick-started United’s incredible two-decades of success under Ferguson.
Robins’ impact in 1990 didn’t end there. He also scored the winner in the semi-final replay win over Oldham Athletic. He left Old Trafford (as Fergie’s saviour) for Norwich City in 1992 in search of regular first team action.
The impact and legend of the first Fledglings can’t compare to that of the second version that featured David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers – after all, they helped propel Manchester United to the pinnacle of world football both on the pitch and on the balance sheet. But without the contributions of Lee Sharpe, Lee Martin and, in particular, Mark Robins, the history of Alex Ferguson, Manchester United and English football would have been considerably different.